July 22, 2015

The Ripple Effect

By By Russell Bloodworth
– Seaside Institute Presentation –

While our existing cities are being reinvented, our suburbs burgeon with new development for a multitude of reasons. As we all know, current growth on urban fringe is generally inefficient and has what I consider its greatest flaw: built in obsolescence. It’s like having a defective DNA in your system. To a certain extent, our codes function like DNA, affecting appearance, connectivity, setbacks and the like.

Plus we have the constant danger of extending over broader areas the monoculture we see so prevalent in the suburbs – miles of sameness. An extensive monoculture is extremely dangerous from an obsolescence point of view, particularly when it is an extensive medium or high density monoculture – which we see today here in Memphis – in the Hickory Hill area and in parts of Cordova.

Everything that we are doing, both in town and on the fringe, must be considered from the point of view of built in obsolescence. I would urge us all to have the greatest possible foresight in our specific solutions. We need to craft all new development with an eye to fifty years down the road. This is true whether the arrangement is new urbanist or more conventional: we must ask ourselves whether we are building in factors that will cause significant obsolescence. Instead, we want communities that are vibrant, loved and respectful of the environment – that will last, that will remain vibrant – a tall order. Communities friendly to a child and friendly to the aged. Filled with a diverse cross section of our population.

We want to focus for a few minutes on some local examples of how the New Urbanism movement is effecting suburban development in our region – what we are calling the Ripple Effect.

My primary emphasis will be on Schilling Farms in Collierville, Tennessee – approximately 20 miles due east of the Peabody and within our SMA. The rate of tax base growth last year in Collierville was twice that of the City of Memphis. Collierville is a town that dates from the 1830’s, that is to say that it is not a “sleeper” community. It is a real town with its own employment base.

We’ve been involved in the Schilling Farms development since its inception about nine years ago. It is 430 acres in size. The Collierville growth plan of the early 1990’s identified it as a future major employment center. When we got involved, it was almost entirely zoned for commercial uses.

My background is in private sector real estate development with an emphasis on large scale mixed use developments. I was fascinated in the 1960’s with the “New Town” movement of that day – along the lines of Reston, Virginia and Columbia, Maryland. My great heroes were Jim Rouse of the Rouse Company and Heikki Von Hertzen who created the village outside of Helsinki called Tapiola. As an American Scandinavian fellow in the late 1960’s, I lived for a year in the suburban village of Vallingby, on the outer ring of Stockholm, doing research on European new communities like Cumbernauld, Scotland and even the suburban development of the Soviet Union. You could say I’ve always been drawn to the fringe!

The first thing we did at Schilling was get in a car and drive all of the older small towns of our region – places like LaGrange, Holly Springs, Somerville, Savannah and Bolivar. We were looking for a vision of what Schilling could and should be in the middle of an existing small town. We had two clear choices in 1996: the new urbanist model and the office in a park model. I was intrigued by what Henry and the Belz organization were doing downtown, but there were no great local examples of suburban centers that were highly mixed use – other than our own projects which dated from the early seventies and mid 1980’s. The first, which I cut my teeth on, was a development called Ridgeway Center which is fairly built out today and contains 8 different uses. The second was Humphreys Center which encompasses 11 uses. But we wanted a better model. We looked carefully at a project outside Birmingham called Greenbrook which I think is a near perfect example of the “office in a park” approach. Everything unsightly was hidden from view, and just the tops of buildings were visible from a heavily landscaped street frontage.

For the other end of the spectrum, Carson took us to Celebration, Florida, which was just coming out of the ground. Celebration was much closer to a full community, with a rich diversity of uses. Instead of cars being hidden everywhere, cars were on the street and retail and residential buildings were pulled close to the street. Landscaping was used in a more formal way. We were particularly enamored with the concept of using the public realm as the organizing element. As Andreas Duany says, there is nothing that beats empirical evidence, and we carefully measured street cross sections, light posts, setbacks, etc.

After a good bit of agonizing, we decided to go with a hybrid Celebration, Florida approach, but under the parameters of the existing Collierville street widths and setback requirements. Collierville at the time was in deep reaction to a lot of poorly executed buildings and thought it could bury the sins of poor design by getting buildings further from the curb lines.

Carson pulled in Brian Shea with Cooper Robertson firm in New York to help us “read” the site. Brian had taken the lead design role on Celebration. After the issue of deciding the general approach, the reading of the site was probably the next most formative step. The site itself was immaculately farmed, with few trees (but those magnificent) and was surrounded by a beautifully articulated white fence. Brian felt strongly that everything we would do should reflect the agrarian nature of the site and wanted us to intersperse “icons” throughout the development to recall that history. With that decided, we rolled up our sleeves and began to work.

We took as our organizing principles values we saw in the early towns as well as those at work in Celebration. Briefly, those principles included organizing around the public realm, mixing uses, the principles of hierarchy, centering, recentering, axial continuity and poche.

But from a land use point of view, we knew we would have to wed our plan to the market. All of my early exposure to well intentioned “New Communities” had underscored the great danger of getting submerged financially under the burden of front end costs – both Reston and Columbia were taken over by the lenders. So on the economic front, we did what I call a “Container Optimization Analysis,” where we look at different combinations of land uses and absorption to obtain the highest overall value potential. These conclusions were melded into the implications of the site to give us a final master plan. We had 11 consultants working with us, and in the end identified 14 different future land uses.

There is no question that the tension between economic reality and our vision to have a wonderful village within a town caused certain compromises. One of the most serious was an aversion to slowing down the development process by arguing about street standards and setback requirements already on the books. We decided not to argue for sake of time. That decision has directly reflected the “look;” the major roads cutting through or along side our development are certainly not “walkable.” And substantial front end infrastructure costs (we are north of 17 million) demanded that we gain momentum quickly from land sales. This caused us to sell some parcels to other experienced developers – particularly on the residential front. I think, in retrospect, that we could have gotten better product out of them had we not been so rushed to cover our initial investment.

Additionally, we were and are dealing with much larger scale building footprints in the office districts than typically seen in most new urbanist projects. Trying to articulate human scale with an 80,000 square foot floor plate is a challenge. Parking has also been handled differently.

Here is a run down of the overall plan. We have two major roads cutting east west through and beside the project, an interstate to the south (without direct connection) and two major collector roads coming in to us from the north. We also have the challenge of a railroad running along our northern boundary, and an agonizing story of legal challenges and headaches caused thereby that I won’t get into. “Working the geometry” led Brian Shea to give us an early cut on the northern section between the two collector road extensions.

We lost the beautiful angularity of Brian’s sketch as soon as the Engineering Department got their hands on our plan, but we kept the overall structure of the plan intact, and utilized our organizing principles that defined the public realm first, centered and recentered, established a clear hierarchy of street and landscape palette. Additionally, we gave a site for a YMCA as close to the center of our development as possible, located a potential church or synagogue site, and worked with County government to include a Middle School.

We developed a very gracious and carefully articulated pedestrian system punctuated with custom benches every 400 feet. A system of iconographic boundary and way finding elements was created. The time and money we spent on the latter was much higher than in most New Urbanist developments, but we are working from our own empirical data gathered over the last 35 years.

We spent considerable effort with the design of our first neighborhood, slightly bending streets around what has come to be a wonderfully scaled park, celebrating the corners and integrating a sense of history into the middle of the geometry. We tucked the 800 student Schilling Farms Middle School at the back of the neighborhood as our neighborhood anchor and imposed landscape and maintenance standards on the public school system that they never had encountered.

You can see from the slide a bit of the geometry, and the flank of the adjoining church was designed to culminate one of the key internal neighborhood vistas.

We are about 60 percent complete, but I fully expect that we have at least twenty more years to go before we will be finished. A commitment over that long a period requires wonderful governance documents and tight architectural controls. We have an overall umbrella Association with many sub associations. We have slowly evolved a way of communicating our small town, 1830’s rooted architecture to designers, and we spend a lot of time working to get the architectural vision accomplished. There are a lot of great designers who are authorized to work in Schilling Farms, and we believe the diversity of firms under the banner of a fairly strict code will produce a sense of place that will not become obsolete.

One reflection on “grain.” The grain of Schilling Farms outside of the single family residential areas is “clunky” for lack of a better word. Some of this is driven by the larger floor plates in some of the districts, but the fine grain of old town Charleston is definitely missing. If we were doing things over again, I would give a lot more thought to the issue of grain, which in turn would focus us on tightening up many dimensions and possibly introducing a finer grain street network. Plus chopping up many sections pieces into much smaller pieces and better mixing them. Of course, when the codes drive you toward excessive automobile lane widths, the economics pushes you toward a coarser grain.

We now have over 800 households living in Schilling Farms, and are reaching the point that we very much would like to add the vibrancy of well conceived shops and restaurants. To this end, Michael Sullivan at LRK has been working on a small piece where we would hope to mix residential and perhaps office over small shops and have a Starbucks on the corner.

We have purposely held off from touching the area that will contain the 35 acre “town center” for fear of doing something early that we would later regret, but we are now revisiting the plan. My hope is that, working closely with the City of Collierville, we can introduce the vitality of residences into town center.

What we see currently at Schilling is a horizontally mixed use development. We would very much like to be able to mix uses vertically – residences over a small shop, and so forth. But this will require a DNA modification.

Projects like Schilling are quite complex, and take a great deal of front end money and thought. I believe many of our suburban municipalities are seeing that wonderful places do not come automatically, and that they can contribute to the overall solution by getting thoughtful ordinances on the books that will allow uses to be mixed vertically by right, that will allow tighter curb radiuses and slower speeds in neighborhood zones and create more walkable neighborhoods. My hope is that the philosophy behind the Transect concept of coding can make great headway here locally – where standards vary according to how urbanized the location is. The job is difficult, but very important to the future health of our overall community.

You will be able to get more information on Schilling if you go on the tour this afternoon.

My friend and colleague Doug Dickens has pioneered the zero lot line neighborhood here in Memphis, doing the first ever in 1980 – before Seaside and everything else that has followed. Doug has thirty projects under his belt, all carefully conceived, and he will share insights with us from some of the most recent.